What is Philosophy A level about?
Philosophy is a subject that resists any simple definition. Just as, in motor mechanics, an electrical problem is sometimes defined (not entirely seriously) as one that cannot be fixed with a hammer, it can seem easier to characterise Philosophy negatively, by reference to what it isn't. Philosophy, one might say, generally concerns itself with questions that other subjects leave unanswered. For example, whereas a physicist can tell you about the nature of the constituent parts of a table – the molecules and atoms and so on of which the table is made – philosophers may ask what it takes for any collection of particles to constitute a larger object. (Some philosophers, finding all proposed answers to this question deficient in some respect, have even doubted that tables (and other ordinary composite objects) really exist.) Again, Politics concerns itself (in part) with just, or fair, distributions of goods in society; philosophers consider questions such as what it means to say that a distribution is fair, or just, and whether and why distributions ought to be fair or just in the first place – what's so good about fairness? One of the many achievements of biological science has been to create a useful and scientifically-informed taxonomy of biological species, detailing the relations between different types of plants and animals. It falls to philosophers to worry about the status of such taxonomy – asking, for example, whether there are any 'real' divisions between different biological kinds in nature, or whether the distinctions are merely constructions of our own minds.
Many philosophical questions, then, intersect with the sciences; but a distinctive feature of the subject is that, while philosophers often use the data of the sciences (and most have an enormous respect for science), they use no experimental tools other than their brains – the subject can be practised entirely from the armchair – and the questions that they consider are distinctive – often seeking a deeper understanding of the fundamental assumptions that, in our ordinary lives, we tend not to question.
Equally, though, plenty of philosophical topics have no particular connection with science at all. In Aesthetics, for example, philosophers consider the basis and the nature of the value of artistic works. Moral Philosophy examines whether there are any moral truths, and the methods and nature of moral decision-making. In Epistemology, you may be asked how (if at all) you can tell that the world around you is the way it seems, and that you are not just a brain being stimulated to have the experiences that you are having. In studying Personal Identity, you may be asked what would happen to you if your brain were transplanted into another body, or whether you could survive being teletransported to another planet by radio waves.
Indeed, it is much easier to get a feeling for what Philosophy is by considering particular issues that have traditionally been of interest to philosophers than by trying to define the subject in the abstract. For example: How ought we to live? What really exists? How do we know anything? How do we even manage to think anything? How is it that a lump of organic matter – the brain – can have thoughts about its surroundings? How can we be sure that the world really is as it looks to us? What does it mean when we say that we ought not to do something? Are any such claims about what we ought to do strictly and objectively true, and if so, what could make them true? What (exactly) are you anyway, and does life have any meaning or purpose? Some, or all, of these questions are probably ones about which you have already wondered: for whilst most students do not study Philosophy formally before Sixth Form or University, practically all of us (in an informal way) have (whether we realised it or not) been doing Philosophy almost since we first learned to speak.
Whom does it suit?
Philosophy combines well with almost any other subject or subjects. The skills of analysis, careful, logical, methodical thought, and clear presentation are useful in all areas of study. Many good philosophers are also strong in mathematics and/or science; but equally many lean towards artistic or literary subjects, or the social sciences; many are linguists. At university, Philosophy is sometimes studied on its own; but it is very frequently combined with other subjects, including Maths, Physics, Theology, Politics, Economics, Psychology, Modern Languages, and Classics.
A distinctive feature of Philosophy is that it is significantly less fact-based than many other subjects. Although certain views and positions have from time to time gained favour among philosophers, and other formerly popular views have become discredited, it is fair to say that there are no (or very few) established answers to the sorts of questions that you will be invited to consider when you study Philosophy. Accordingly, there are relatively few marks for getting the 'right' answer in this subject. That is not to say that there are no facts to be learned; on the contrary, you will be expected to learn plenty of factual material: you will have to know and understand the details of many of the arguments that have in fact been advanced by philosophers (both ancient and modern) in the areas that you study. In doing so you will need to learn, and use, many new concepts and a good deal of new terminology (the level of jargon in Philosophy is initially quite daunting in itself). But that is merely the beginning, for the real challenge is to deploy this factual and conceptual knowledge so as to be able to evaluate the arguments and positions that others have advanced, develop arguments of your own, to be able to modify positions so as to respond to relevant objections, and so on. Doing this effectively requires that you first gain a very clear understanding of the concepts and terminology, the arguments that have historically been deployed in the area that you are studying, and their significance. It also requires you to sharpen your analytical sense so that you can identify flaws in arguments presented by others and anticipate possible objections to your own arguments. Above all, it requires that you develop your writing skills so as to be able to express yourself with clarity and great precision. Much of the material that you are required to read and understand is complex and convoluted, and the differences between views are often subtle and can be hard to express. For a subject that you can do while sitting down and staring out of the window, it is surprisingly hard work; but it is also immensely rewarding.
As the examples above suggest, Philosophy meddles in quite a range of quite different areas. Indeed, there is no real limit to the scope of the subject, save only that the it requires one to think clearly and logically about the topic under investigation. Above all, Philosophy is concerned with arguments rather than facts, and in studying Philosophy you will learn to sharpen your skills in presenting your own arguments and (especially) criticising those of others. A high degree of precision – even pedantry – in your thinking is required. If you were inclined to question the definition of an electrical problem as one that cannot be fixed with a hammer by observing that there must in fact be some electrical faults that can be remedied with a hammer – for example, by using it to join two electrical contacts that have become separated – then you are thinking in the right way already.
What does the course consist of?
There are four units. The AS Units (Unit 1 and Unit 2) are studied in the first year (Year 12/Lower Sixth) and lead to an AS qualification; the A2 units (Unit 3 and Unit 4) are studied in the second year (Year 13/Upper Sixth) and, together with the AS units, lead to the full A-level qualification.
Within each of Units 1, 2 and 3, two 'topics' (out of a choice of five) are studied. For Unit 4, there is a single topic requiring detailed study of a philosophical text. The topics available for each unit are as follows. The only compulsory topic is Reason and Experience in Unit 1.
- Reason and experience
- Why should I be governed?
- Why should I be moral?
- The idea of God
- Free will and determinism
- Knowledge of the external world
- The value of art
- God and world
- Philosophy of mind
- Political philosophy
- Epistemology and metaphysics
- Moral philosophy
- Philosophy of religion
- Plato, Republic (extracts)
- Hume's Enquiry (extracts)
- Mill, On Liberty
- Descartes, Meditations
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (extracts)
Each Unit has a 90-minute written examination (120 minutes for Unit 3). Within each topic that you study for Units 1, 2, and 3, you are required to answer one question Each question is in two parts, one part typically requiring a factual explanation of some concept, distinction or issue, the other typically requiring a longer, critical analysis or evaluation of a given philosophical view or argument. For Unit 4, you are required to answer one compulsory question on the text studied and one other question. There is no coursework.
Who will teach me
David Mackie took a double First in Greats (Classics) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford before switching to Philosophy and taking a B. Phil. and D. Phil. in Philosophy, also at Oxford. He was Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1998 to 2003. He is also a qualified lawyer, and worked as a solicitor specialising in corporate taxation from 2005 to 2009 before returning to teaching at d'Overbroeck's in 2010.
What might the subject lead onto?
A recent study of undergraduates by the Government indicated that Philosophy and Theology students were the more content than students of any other subject. If that is not enough to attract you to Philosophy as a degree subject, it may interest you to know that a wide range of employers seek exactly the type of skills taught by philosophy. Among them you will find the civil service, IT companies, City firms, charities and media employers (as well as academic institutions).
Similarly, universities will value the skills learned at A-level philosophy whether you are applying specifically for philosophy or not. The ability to develop an argument and to think clearly are invaluable tools whatever direction you eventually decide to take.